The Ottoman Turks’ capture of Constantinople in 1453 was the critical preliminary to their land offensive into Southern Europe and North Africa and their maritime conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean in the early modern age. By the end of the fifteenth century they had completed their conquest of Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and Greece. Under Suleiman the Magnificent (Sultan from 1520 to 1566), they extended their empire into Syria and Egypt, incorporated into it the Christian kingdom of Hungary, reduced most of the Venetian islands in the Aegean and, in 1529, laid siege to Vienna, Habsburg capital of the Holy Roman Empire. They also conducted major campaigns into Persia, secured footholds in North Africa, invaded Southern Italy and raided into the Western Mediterranean.
It seemed, by mid-century, that no Christian power could stand against that of the Muslim Turks. Not only were they the standard-bearers of a spiritually dynamic Islam, they were also the exemplars of a new style of warfare, based on mastery of contemporary high technology and on the organization of a new sort of professional army, the janissaries. The janissaries, recruited by the enslavement of Christian boys from the Balkans, converted to Islam and bound to long military apprenticeship, were soldiers pure and simple. Their life was war and, under the green banner of the Ottoman Sultan, who in 1517 had also appointed himself Caliph, or head of the religion of Islam, they appeared to Christian Europe, by the middle of the sixteenth century, to be invincible.
By 1565 the only barrier remaining between the Turks’ stronghold in the Eastern Mediterranean and their newly acquired outposts in the Western Mediterranean was the island of Malta, owned and garrisoned by the Crusading Order of St John. The order had begun as a religious community of hospitallers in Jerusalem. During the Crusades, its knights had become soldiers and, after their expulsion from the Holy Land, had stoutly defended the island of Rhodes (1522) and Libyan Tripoli (1551) against the Turkish aggression. Their possessions reduced to Malta, granted them by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V after their expulsion from those places and in recognitionof their stalwart Christian militancy, the knights girded themselves in 1565 to withstand a final Ottoman onslaught. The Turks landed on the island in May of that year with 30,000 troops, to oppose a force of 500 knights, supported by 8,500 Maltese and foreign mercenaries. The order’s Grand Master was Jean de la Valette. Under his inspired leadership, the defence of the fortifications around the Grand Harbour was sustained for five months, until the Ottomans abandoned the siege and withdrew in defeat. The knights’ successful defence, won at the cost of about 6,000 casualties to the Turks’ 24,000, checked the expansion of Islamic power into the Western Mediterranean for good. The Order of St John, which exists to this day, annually celebrates a Victoria Mass in September to commemorate the triumph.
Tuesday, 7 August 1565
On the seventh [of August], one hour before daylight, we saw that all the Turks on Cortin had commenced to move on Saint Michael‘s, and those from the fleet were being conveyed in boats from Marsa-M’xett to Is-Salvatur. This was a sign that the Turks would make an assault that day, as it turned out.
At daybreak a general assault was made on Saint Michael’s as well as the Post of Castile, with so much shouting, beating of drums and blaring of trumpets that would have caused wonder had we not experienced it before.
The strength of the assailants on Saint Michael’s was 8,000 and those on the Post of Castile 4,000. They attacked simultaneously as was their plan and as we had anticipated. But, when they left their trenches to come to the assault we were already at our posts, the hoops alight, the pitch boiling: in fact, all the materials for our defence were ready for action, and, when they scaled the works they were received like men who were expected.
The assaults on this day were most daring and well fought on both sides with great bitterness and much bloodshed. The greatest effort was made against the Post of Colonel Robles and that of Bormla, where Don Bernardo de Cabrera commanded. These Posts were the most vulnerable because of being so levelled they seemed easiest to gain. Here most of the fighting of the day took place, the Turks throwing in their main force. It was here that the greatest havoc was done amongst them both from the effect of the incendiary missiles and the fire from the traverses of these two Posts which faced each other and supported one another, bringing a deadly cross-fire to bear on the enemy who hoped to enter by this locality.
During the action their artillery did not fire as usual so as not to risk hitting their own men who were in close formation and very exposed. As on all other occasions, we fought behind cover having been made wiser by our losses in the past.
Although the assault on Saint Michael’s was most severe, the attack on the Post of Castile was not less determined. In fact, the situation here became so serious that a knight of the Habit, a man of position, went to the Grand Master (who was in the square with the reserves, waiting to be called where most required) and said to him: ‘Your Lordship, come to the relief of Castile because the Turks are coming in.’
Unmoved, the Grand Master turned to his knights and said: ‘Let us all go and die there, for this is the day.’ Having said this, with admirable courage, he took his helmet from a page and his pike from another, and went towards the Post of Castile followed by all the reserves.
When he arrived at the gate leading to the menaced position, the Prior of Champagne, the Bailiff of Eagle, the Conservator La Motta, Captain Romegas, and Commander Saquenville tried to dissuade him from going to the place of danger, but, to their sorrow, he insisted, and even wanted to mount the angle of the Cavalier of Castile on which the Turks had already gained a footing, but this they would not allow him to do because it was so very exposed to the enemy artillery of both Is-Salvatur and Karkara; so he went to the low battery of Claramonte pike in hand, like a common soldier; but, when he looked up and saw the Post of the Spur of Buonainsegna full of Turks he took an arquebuse from a soldier, and, pointing it towards the enemy, called out: ‘There boys, there.’
At this sign, all of us who were in this low battery aimed upwards at the enemy and fired as fast as we could, while those of ours who were above pelted them so furiously with incendiary missiles and stones as to force them to retire with heavy loss.
When the principal knights saw that we were no longer in danger they persuaded the Grand Master to retire from the place where he stood, surrounded by more than twenty dead. He consented to withdraw, like a good captain who knew that, after God, our salvation depended on his life; but he was far from retiring to rest for he did not go further than the gate of the inner works, where he stopped.
It always pained him to see any of our dead although he dissembled his feelings and when anyone was killed he praised him so as to infuse courage into the others.
On this day His Lordship was wounded in the leg, but this did not cause him to relax his duties although his leg was in bandages.
During this assault the Imperial Standard of the Sultan of Turkey was seen on the walls of Castile at the Post of Buonainsegna. It had the white tail of a horse with many tassels. We threw many lines with hooks so as to take it and at last caught it. With our pulling one way and the enemy the other, the knob which surmounted it fell off and in this way they saved their standard; but not before many of its gold and silver tassels had been burnt by our fire.
The assault lasted nine hours, from daybreak until after noon, during which time the Turks were relieved by fresh troops more than a dozen times, while we refreshed ourselves with drinks of well-watered wine and some mouthfuls of bread, for so great was the care which his most illustrious Lordship had for us, that, seeing he could not relieve us by fresh men (like the Turks) because he had so few, he cheered us in this manner. Since he could not provide fresh men he had given orders that, on days when assaults were made, many bottles of watered wine and bread should be freely supplied at all the Posts which were engaged. He had also ordered that many barrels of salt water should be kept at all the Posts so as to afford relief to those who suffered from burns, and were it not for all these thoughtful provisions no human endurance could have withstood the fury and pertinacity of the Turks who were so many and we so few.
Victory was ours again but it was due to Divine agency rather than to human effort, for the enemy had intended this to be their final assault and no man who could fight had been left behind in the camp or with the fleet.
As to ourselves, in spite of all the help and encouragement which the Grand Master afforded us, not one could stand on his legs from fatigue or wounds. Many of ours were killed. But the Lord came to our aid in the following manner.
When these assaults had lasted fully nine hours, one might say that our Lord inspired our cavalry who were in the City with their horses. On that day they went out as usual, and, as they did not see a single Turk anywhere, they pushed on as far as the Marsa where they became aware of the great danger their Order was in. Not knowing how else they could help because they were barely a hundred horse and as many infantry, they made an onslaught on the sick and other non-combatants who were there, killing as many of them as were found, and shouting ‘Victory and relief’ the whole time.
Some Turks from the fleet who were stationed on the promontory of Saint Elmo were the first to notice this commotion going on at the Marsa, and, forming themselves into a squadron, set off in good order to the Marsa. The Turks who were attacking the Post of Castile and Saint Michael’s noticed the movement of this squadron, but, seeing that it had not advanced more than a hundred paces when it turned about and made for the fleet with all haste, they halted and abandoned the attack.
At the same time the news reached the Commander of the land forces that those who had been left behind at the Marsa had all been killed and the tents plundered. This news spread to the trenches where it grew until it was said that strong reliefs for us had arrived, and that if they did not retire in time they would all lose their heads. This false rumour had such an effect on the enemy that they all retired from their trenches waiting for orders from the Pasha or any of their officers. The first to leave were those facing the Post of Castile, and, on emerging from the ditch, came under the fire of our arquebuses at the Post of Auvergne, and many were so killed. When those who were attacking Saint Michael’s saw the flight of their men on the promontory of Saint Elmo they hesitated; but when, soon after, their wounded came in and exaggerated our force a thousandfold, they raced each other out of their trenches and none of their officers could stop them.
This sudden retirement of the Turks bewildered us, for we did not know its reason. We thought that it might be due to some discord between their different elements, as often happens in war, or that some renegades had sailed away with part of their fleet, or, again, that some relief force of ours had landed and was close on the enemy.
We soon learned that the Sicilians, from their Post, had been the first to detect our cavalry at the Marsa fighting sword in hand and had immediately reported it to the Grand Master, who sent a vedette to the top of the clock tower to verify the information.
The Sicilians then gave a shout of ‘Victory and relief’. This shout was passed on from Post to Post, and while it cheered us it put panic into the hearts of the Turks, and there was not one of them who remained in the trenches or one of ours who did not mount on the parapets.
Meanwhile the Turks had not discovered what had happened. Mustapha Pasha formed up his men and marched on Santa Margarita in good order so as to take advantage of that position and its guns against all eventualities. On arrival he halted and waited for reliable information as to what was really going on.
The Turks soon became aware that a mere handful of men had baulked them of such a great victory, putting them into a state of panic and disorder. They advanced, with their flags unfurled, towards our men; but scouts gave timely warning. Each horseman mounted a foot soldier behind him and in perfect order, without losing a single man, retired to the old City after having killed many of the enemy, and saved the Order and all the besieged.
The humiliation of the Pashas and all the Turks was great when they realized that so few men had done them so much harm and put such a fear into them. Mustapha Pasha’s resentment centred on Piali, because, he said, if after forming his men on the promontory of Saint Elmo he had marched on the Marsa the demoralization of his own men would not have happened. In any case, if he did not advance there was no need to retire in such great haste and disorder. Piali replied that he had received reports of a Christian landing in great force, and, under such circumstances, it was his duty to save the fleet, knowing that the Sultan thought more of it than of armies such as this one; and having said this to Mustapha he left him to digest it.
Judging by the haste with which the Turks removed their dead more than 2,000 must have been killed before Saint Michael’s, and their wounded (as we ascertained later) were twice that number. Before the Post of Castile more than 200 of their most distinguished men died; among them being the Greek Ochali (El Louk Aly). On our side we had sixty killed, but the wounded exceeded that number. The following are the names of the more prominent among them.
Ensign Muñatones. It was said that one of our soldiers shot him in the right hand through carelessness.
Commander (Francisco) Torrellas. Commander (Antonio) Fuster.
Commander (Gabriel) Serralta (? Ceralta) and Don Jorge Fabellon. (Not otherwise identified as a knight.)
All these knights of the Habit were wounded.
Those who greatly distinguished themselves at Saint Michael’s on this day were:
Colonel Melchor Robles. The Prior of Hungary (Don Vincenzo Caraffa).
Don Francisco de Bargas Manrique (de Burgues Manrique). Hernando de Heredia.
Captain Martelo (Antonio Martelli). Don Juan Mascon.
Don Bernardo de Cabrera. The knight Adorno (Gregorio Adorno).
Juan Burato (Giovanni Buratto or Buralto, a postulant).
Among the soldiers were sergeant Chaparro; the lieutenant of Martelli, Silvestro del Testo; Giulio Crudeli, his ensign; Mathias de Ribera; and sergeant Chacon; Giromimo, a slave of Commander Fortunio (Ramon Fortuyn), who was wounded by a grappling iron while fighting on a parapet; and Bartholomé (from Majorca), a retainer of Commander Serralta, and other retainers of knights. Many of the Maltese also fought valiantly.
Those who distinguished themselves at the Post of Castile were the most valiant Lord Jean de La Valette, most worthy Grand Master of the Venerable Hospital of Jerusalem, our Commander-in-Chief during the siege.
Commander (Pedro) Buonainsegna. Commander Chencho Gas-con (Gencio, or Lorenzo Guasconi). Don Juan de Mendoca. Don Vasco de Acuña. Captain Romegas (Mathurin d’Aulx de Lescout, dit Romegas). Commander Pierre de Giou. Commander Sacambila (Louis de Mailloc Saquenville). (Esteban) Claramonte. Zaportella. (There were three of the name.) Don Rodrigo Maldonado. Fraguo (Don Alonso del Frago), and many other knights of the Habit, soldiers of fortune, and retainers of knights. Among the soldiers, the Grand Master’s tailor, a Maltese named Marco, fought very well. Vincenzo Cigala, a clerk; Nicolò Rodio; Master Juan Oliver; Lorencio Puche from Majorca; Mendoza; and the knight Peri Juan Alegre (not a knight of Saint John and not otherwise identified), took part in the fighting at the Post of Claramonte.
The knights who took no part in this fighting yet rendered good service, for, bv order of their Grand Master they guarded the other Posts which were very thinly held on account of the greater part of the knights and soldiers being called to reinforce the menaced positions.
I cannot pass over in silence the valour shown during the whole of the siege by all the young knights — of all nations — who took part in the defence with great pluck and readiness and fought in the most dangerous places, filling the gaps made by the fallen with as much courage as if they had been old soldiers. They were undaunted by the many and horrible deaths which they continually witnessed, and, as I am not acquainted with the names of all I prefer not to mention those I know lest I should appear to be partial, which I certainly am not.
As soon as all the Turks had retired from Saint Michael’s Colonel Robles, in the presence of all, went on his knees and gave thanks to our Lord for the great victory which it had pleased Him to grant us; and he sent a request to the Grand Master to have a Te Deum sung at San Lorenzo because we had been given one of the greatest triumphs which Christians had ever achieved. The bearer of this message had no need to deliver it because he found the Grand Master in the church of San Lorenzo giving thanks to our Lord, as he always did after a Turkish retirement, and the Te Deum invoked by Robles was being sung with great solemnity. When it was over a procession was made, and if it was not so imposing as those usually made by this Order, the tears of many men and women demonstrated its devotion.
The knights who came to our aid with their cavalry were Commander Vincenzo Anastagi (because Boisbreton had been wounded and his place taken by Lugny) ...
Meanwhile some were not wanting who, affecting great solicitude for the safety of the Grand Master, and because they saw the breaches were very wide and believed we could not hold out, advised him to retire within Saint Angelo with the best part of the Order because there he could wait in greater security until relief should come. This counsel became known to the soldiers and each one spoke freely of what he thought of these advisers.
When the Grand Master heard this, ready as he was to be the first to die for his Order, he caused all the relics and all that was of value to be taken to Saint Angelo, and, in order to dispel any doubt, he ordered the bridge to be removed, thus making it clear to all that there should be no retirement and that we should defend the Birgu or die in the attempt.
Before the Turks made their last assault they had already reached the entrance to the ditch of the Post of Castile by means of well-covered trenches. The entrance to this ditch was defended by the casemate of the Post of Auvergne with eight gun emplacements, four above and four in the ditch, but, owing to its small size, it could not mount heavy artillery. When the Turks reached the entrance to the ditch and saw the harm which they suffered whenever they attacked or during retirement and that their batteries could not cover them or touch the casemate, they determined to erect a trench at the mouth of the ditch which would allow them to go in and out and which should be strong enough to withstand the fire from the guns of the casemate. They kept to the right of the battery at the spur of the cavalier [earthwork] where it came under the fire from Karkara which already reached nearly as far as the middle ditch. (It is not clear whether it was the fire from Karkara or the new trench which reached nearly as far as the middle ditch.) They dug till they reached the outer revetment of the contrefosse without our being able to molest them although we were always throwing stones and firebowls at them from our parapet. It was on this parapet that Captain Esteban Calderon, a knight of the Habit, lost his life while looking over to see what they were doing.
When the Turks reached this wall they made an opening in it, and through this they began to throw earth and fascines into the ditch. When the earth was heaped to the level of this opening in the wall they pushed it further into the ditch. They did all this under the fire of a small gun which Captain Romegas had mounted for the purpose and which he himself aimed and fired all day long, doing the Turks much harm. As the gun emplacement was very confined, and so as to prevent the carriage from going to pieces from the effects of the recoil, Romegas ordered a buffer of hawsers to be put behind it.
When the Turks had thus completed three parts of their trench, their position behind it became secure and they finished it to perfection according to their design.
While these operations by the Turks were taking place, the Grand Master was informed that it was impossible to prevent them from completing the trench and, when finished, it would be greatly to our disadvantage. As a counter-measure he ordered a tunnel to be dug to the right of this trench inside the walls at the point of the cavalier, whence it was intended to oppose those who entered the ditch or to serve as a sally port whence we could go out and destroy their trench. Unfortunately, when our tunnel was completed it was found that the sap head was commanded by two pieces of the battery at Karkara which had bombarded the traverses of the Post of Don Rodrigo Maldonado. For this reason we did not proceed with the opening of the tunnel but left it as it was lest it should be of use in some other way; inside the works, however, other defences were erected in which were many devices for our defence.